THIS BOOK BEGINS IN EASTERN EUROPE, which was my home for nearly five years. I lived longest in landlocked Hungary and traveled throughout the region writing about the collapse of one system, efforts to build a more promising replacement, and the scheming few who for personal advantage harnessed--and in some cases unleashed--the darkest demons of Europe's past. In academic papers and, later, newspapers and magazines, I often found myself exploring these themes through environmental issues.
This may seem an unusual approach, but in 1989 it made perfect sense. In the late 1980s, many of Eastern Europe's Communist regimes thought environmental issues were a safe, apolitical forum through which the public could be allowed to blow off some steam without threatening the existing order. They unwittingly wedged an opening that would help bring down one-party rule. The first mass protests in Hungary were organized against a hydroelectric project being built by Hungary and Czechoslovakia on the Danube River. In 1989, Bulgaria's Ecoglasnost--a group formed to protest air pollution in Ruse from a Romanian chemical plant--led the protests that allowed reform Communists to overthrow Todor Zhivkov's hard-line regime. By several accounts, the 1987 Chernobyl disaster prompted Mikhail Gorbachev to move faster and farther with Glasnost than he originally intended. By disclosing the details of this and other accidents and allowing the public to respond, Moscow opened a torrent of uncensored speech and triggered large environmental protests in Latvia, Armenia, and Ukraine, some with nationalist undertones.